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"A mite stingy on yer portions, ain't you?" Vin looked up from the plate before him.
"There's plenty more in there, but you ain't had much in the way of solid food for a while. Figured I'd see how you handled this much first." Chris smiled as he forked a healthy portion of mashed potatoes in his mouth.
Tanner followed suit, smiling at the taste of real food. They had spent the afternoon on the porch; Chris easily convinced to bring dinner out there as well. He wasn't certain how many times he had succumbed to his body's continued weariness during those hours. The fragile man had awakened with a start a few times, though. And every time he did, the blond was there, hands steadying him in the chair and soft voice reassuring him that he was safe. Vin sighed; the sun was closing in n the Western horizon now, yet another day at an end.
They finished the meal, listening to the night creatures tuning up to begin their symphony. Chris couldn't help but grin when the other man dropped his fork into his plate and leaned back with a contented sigh.
"Doing okay there, Pard?"
"Shove me in a cook stove, I'm stuffed," Vin grinned drunkenly.
Chris chuckled. "Take it you're too full for dessert then?"
Vin gawked openly at the other man. "You fergit who ya's talkin' to?"
Larabee laughed out loud now, rose from his seat, and quickly returned with pie for them both. He had to nudge the tracker, rousting him from a light sleep.
Tanner managed to eat nearly half the dessert before his body began to protest. He leaned back in the chair, one hand holding his tautly stretched stomach, the other wiping his tight-lipped mouth.
Chris was quickly at his side, smiling sympathetically. "Yep, think you over did it. You gonna be sick?"
Vin took several deep breaths before he risked opening his mouth. "Ain't wastin' all that good food."
Larabee chuckled, "All right then, let's get you in to bed."
Tanner sighed, but didn't argue. He let Chris pull him to his feet and steady him as a second wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. Finally, he lifted his head from where it rested on the black-clad shoulder. With his best friend at his side, the tired young man walked slowly into the house and dropped wearily to the bed.
"Ain't right," the sharpshooter muttered.
"What ain't right?" Larabee asked as he pulled his friend's boots off.
"This is yer place. I ought'n't ta be takin' yer bed."
Chris smiled. "You're not taking it. I offered it."
"Still ain't right."
"Don't see much of a choice in the matter; I've only got one bed."
"That's th' point. I c'n sleep in m' bedroll just fine."
"Not likely. You ain't got any padding yourself right now; you need something under you to keep your bones from rubbing through the skin." Larabee winked.
"Yeah, but yer older'n me. Hate ta have ta pick you up off th' floor when you get all stove up on th' floor."
While they talked, the two men had acted in concert to get Tanner stripped down to his long johns. Chris coaxed him up enough to pull the blankets back, and then settled him in the narrow bed. As Tanner delivered his last comment, Chris shot him a glare that was tinged with humor. "Damn smart ass."
He retrieved a mug of Nathan's tea and handed it to the younger man. Sitting on the edge of the mattress so that Vin understood quickly that he was going to make certain that he drank the bitter drink. "You take the bed tonight; we'll talk about sleeping arrangements more tomorrow."
Finishing the drink, Tanner handed the mug to his friend and slid farther down in the bed. He was still feeling queasy, and he doubted the healer's brewed skunk water would help any. To his surprise though, he soon found his eyelids growing heavy.
Chris settled at the foot of the bed, watching as Vin drifted toward sleep. The finely chiseled features relaxed, losing hold of the pain and worry that hounded him while he was awake. When he was finally satisfied that the worn young man was finally deep in the embrace of sleep, he rose carefully from the bed. He tucked the rough blanket around the thin shoulders, absently brushing a curl from the pale face. "Sleep tight, pard," he whispered softly.
As another day dawned, this one gray and blowing the threat of rain in the hard wind, Vin saw movement at the side of the house. Willie Joe, the little boy who had never been a child, appeared for the first time in days. He made his way to the cage, holding the gun belt around his waist in place with one hand. In the other he held something tightly, unseen until he reached the prison door. It was the key. Managing to pull the old Colt from its holster, he held it on the exhausted man while he unlocked the door. Pulling the wire-bound door open, he motioned Vin out. "Ma sez ta take you round front, have you cut down whut's left a Dummy 'n bury 'm. Sez I'm ta shoot you if you so much 's look like you wanna git away. I c'n do 't, too, so don't be gittin' no foolish ideas."
Vin managed to pull himself out of the little cage and struggled to stand. He grasped the door, yelping as the barbed wire cut into his palm. He maintained his hold, though, using the roughhewn door to steady himself. He stole a look back at Darry. She didn't seem to be aware of what was going on. Tanner considered coaxing her out as well, but decided not to. It had been far too long since her son had been hung. That was a sight no mother should have to endure. Better to leave her inside the pickets.
Orienting himself to moving more than a step or two for the first time in days, Vin managed to shuffle through the yard ahead of the little guard. Thought of making an escape was fleeting. His muddled mind sorted through things, realizing that he should have coaxed Darry out after all. Even as weak as they both were, they could have easily gotten away from the child. The chance was lost now, though, he wouldn't leave without her. He also knew that, as drained as he was, he wouldn't have to worry about Willie Joe shooting him. He'd drop dead inside a mile.
Several times he stumbled, falling to his knees. He wondered how he was going to manage to take care of this task, but he was damned if he wouldn't try to carry it out. He had not lied to Hessie, he found it nearly impossible to deal with the thought of Darry's son hanging from that tree, no one caring enough for the poor, simple-minded boy to bury him.
The sun was in a noticeably different place in the sky by the time Vin and Willie Joe made it around the house. He looked up then, seeing what he had expected, but prayed not to find. The young man's body dangled from the tree, blackened and swollen in death. The rope had slowly torn into his flesh until now; it was supported by little more than the spine. His tongue protruded grotesquely past his teeth and lips, eyes sunken back in the swollen face. His limbs were distended, nearly ripping through the ragged cloth of his shirt and pants.
Gagging at the sight, Vin found himself on his knees once again. He had nothing to dispose of, dry heaves ripping through his already pain-wracked body. It was several long moments before he could gather the strength to gain his feet again. Slowly he shuffled toward the tree once more.
A stool had already been dragged into place, a knife laying on it. Picking up the knife by its battered handle, the sharpshooter held onto it as he slowly pulled himself up onto the stool. What was once something so simple that he would have done it without thought; he had to focus on each movement. His body protested as he balanced and lifted each leg upward, setting each foot on the rough wooden platform. Once atop the stool, he leaned heavily against the tree, nearly crying with exhaustion.
Vin had no idea how long it took for him to pull himself together, but finally he lifted the knife and began sawing at the rope. Even though he could easily see the frayed hemp was well past its prime, it felt like tempered steel to his weakened muscles. But, finally, he managed to cut through it. He could do nothing more than turn away as the decomposing body fell the several feet to the ground. The knife slipped from his hands, clattering to the ground as well. Barely managing to keep his balance, he climbed down, dropping to the stool with a groan.
Yet more time passed before he lifted his head, staring at first the dead body and then at his tiny captor. Willie Joe stared back at him, for a brief instant a frightened little boy. Then he recovered, glaring at the struggling man.
"Best git on with 't," he ordered. "I done got a hole fer 'm, over yonder."
Tanner turned, seeing the pitifully shallow grave nearby. He knew he should make it deeper to keep the animals from digging up the corpse. He also knew he'd never be able to add another six inches to the depth before collapsing. It would have to do.
Hessie came from the house then, one hand over her mouth and nose to block the smell of death, and a blanket in the other. She handed it to Vin, then hurried back into the house. Tanner slowly pulled the dead body toward the hole, having to stop several times to regain his strength. There was a damp trail behind them, the essence of which he refused to dwell on. When he managed to get Daniel to the hole, he dropped to his knees. Wrapping the bloated corpse in the blanket as snuggly as possible, he rolled the body into the hole. Tucking the blanket in around the young man, he sat back on his heels.
"Y'ain't gonna be able ta cover 'm yerself, not in th' shape yer in," Willie Joe remarked. "Reckon I best git'cha back in th' cage, so's I c'n do 't m'self."
Vin looked up, amazed at how calmly the child discussed the burial. "You sure?"
Nodding, his captor said, "I c'n do 't."
The trip back to the cell took almost twice as long as the trip out. By the end, Tanner could no longer get to his feet. He crawled along, too exhausted to feel embarrassed by his mode of travel. As they reached the cage, Hessie came out, bringing their daily portion of food. Vin collapsed inside the wooden bars, consciousness a fleeting thing.
The plates and canteen were left, Hessie and Willie Joe disappearing back around the house. Inside the little cage, there was no movement for several minutes. Then, finally, one battered body began to move, crawling across to the other.
Darry pulled both plates toward her, smiling slightly when she saw one contained a couple of actual pieces of meat. She supposed it was a thank you for Vin nearly killing himself to do the decent thing. The young woman had heard Willie talking earlier, uncertain at the time as to whether or not she was dreaming. Seeing the abused man return exhausted to the point of crawling, she realized that it has not been a dream.
Dumping both portions in on plate, she repaid yet another favor. Settling the semi-conscious man on her lap, she began feeding him. At first he nearly choked, so tired he could barely swallow. Changing tactics and giving him a long, healthy drink of water from the canteen, she offered him the food at a more leisurely pace. He finally woke enough to chew one of the pieces of meat, but argued until she finally ate the other. Between them, they drained the canteen, Wade making certain that he had the larger quantity.
Their miserable meal finished, Darry managed to coax a little more water from the canteen onto a strip of her shirt. She used it to wipe the perspiration and dirt coated face, smiling when he sighed at her touch. Blue eyes fluttered open, staring tiredly up at her. Softly she said, "Thank you, Vin."
While Chris Larabee had lost all sense of time, a week had passed for the rest of the world. His care had become the focus of the household as, while his mind had retreated, his body continued to have needs. Bedding was changed as necessary, his body bathed and the makeshift wrappings removed and replaced with others. The swelling had slowly gone down, the bruises still heavy along his leg. They alternated between heated blankets and icy sheets from the compounds own ice house.
Although she frequently visited, entreating him in her deranged way to love her, Ella had no more luck in getting through to her former lover. Coy banter was interspersed with red-faced rages when he made no response. Time and again she threatened to have him removed to the cellar, but nothing ever came of it. Instead, she would drift away, her mind returning to that time when she had everything she wanted. She would ramble on about those long ago times of late night drinking binges and his fighting for her honor.
But then she began to brag about her part in the death of Sarah and Adam Larabee.
"You know, Cletus tells me that it was quite easy to kill them. The men he hired kept watch on the windows, firing if they saw any movement at all. He says he rather enjoyed watching that quaint little house of yours burn, listening to that sow and her little bastard screaming for help."
"He tells me that it was easy to disguise the real reason he killed them, too. All he had to do was make it sound as if he was after you and that their deaths weren't planned. All he had to do was use the term 'he' and there was no way you would ever think of your darling Ella. Fowler did it to protect me, isn't that noble? It was as easy to make him love me as it was to charm any of the others."
The reality of the black crack faded, the hated voice becoming clearer.
"Not that I was worried about you discovering my little secret. I love you, darling, but I knew you'd never figure it out. Like all men, you have always been easily manipulated. You'd never have suspected your darling Ella in such a vile deed. If that long-haired cretin hadn't planted a seed of doubt in your mind, we would never have had to endure that long separation. We could be raising horses... even beginning that tribe of mewling brats you seemed to want. But thanks to Tanner, everything was set back." She fairly growled the last.
Blue eyes blazed into his soul, pleading with him.
"Now, I realize that there's some reluctance on your part to give up your misplaced loyalties. You seem intent on making me the villainess of this piece, although I cannot fathom the reason for it. What is it that turned you from loving me, my dearest?"
A raspy voice called out to him. He answered it with a promise of freedom.
"Never mind," she continued with a sigh when she saw he wasn't going to respond. "I forgive you, love, whatever your reasons. I'm certain you never meant to hurt me. Let's just put it all behind us and go forward from today."
"You bitch," his voice was hoarse, raspy, and little more than a whisper.
Gaines jumped as his words forced themselves into her unhinged mind. "Chris! How dare you call me such a malicious name!"
"It's the truth," he winced as the handful of words caused his throat to ache.
"NO!" she screamed, her nails raking across his face as she battered him once more.
Larabee closed his eyes, turning his face away from the attack. He put one arm up, but otherwise simply allowed the blows to fall. After several minutes he realized that she was no longer assaulting him.
Running a rough hand over his face, he blinked rapidly as reality adjusted itself. Finding himself back in the room that had been his prison for far too long already, he groaned. He pushed himself up on his elbows, the long hours of disuse sending tremors of weakness through his muscles. Assessing the damage to his leg, he tried moving it. The battered limb felt heavy and nearly useless, it would be some time before it was able to support his weight again.
Falling back to the pillows, Chris ground the heels of his hands against his eyelids. He had no idea how long he had been Ella's prisoner again. He had a vague sense that it was days since he had been forced to relinquish his friend and return to her house. Days since her men had attacked Darry and hanged her son. Days since they shot the horse out from under them. Returning to the world brought with it a flood of images, and many of those images brought with them questions.
Was Vin alive?
Would he ever be able to escape a second time?
How long would it be before the other five men considered them lost?
Would they come looking, even though he had made it clear that he wouldn't return before Ella Gaines was dead?
Was there a reason to even consider returning from the peace and stability of the nothingness?
A sound filled the room, more like that of a wounded animal than of a human being. Chris slowly realized that it was him. Tears filled his eyes, and he let them spill down his face. His mind filled with a thousand images, all of them dark. With each new thought another torrent of tears burned along his flesh, soaking the plush pillow beneath his head. The emotions welled, the pain ripping through his already tortured mind. He cried out again and again, until the room was filled with the plaintive sounds that echoed off the walls and filled the air.
A month had come and gone since Chris and Vin left to hunt down Ella Gaines. The other five peacekeepers had made a variety of arrests, for everything from creating a nuisance to attempted murder. JD's keen eye had spotted a man wanted for bank robbery in San Francisco and, with the others, had successfully arrested him. The men played host to the prisoner until the Marshals had come to transport him back to California.
Nathan had spent several days at the reservation when some of the children had taken ill, depleting the towns' law enforcement team even more. Ezra was only on the job when he couldn't find a poker game, Buck frequently took his leave in the company of one or two of the girls from Virginia's, and Josiah found more and more to do at the church. While they were quick to come through when needed, the young sheriff found himself alone a lot of the time. The more mundane duties - care and feeding of prisoners being the most prominent - fell on the young man's shoulders much of the time.
JD sighed, his chair tipped back against the wall outside the jail. He watched comings and goings along the boardwalk with only marginal interest. His mind was where it seemed to be so often lately, on the past. Not the distant past, but that of a few months ago. he found it difficult not to wish for the days when they were seven. It seemed as if the heart had gone out of the group with the absence of Larabee and Tanner. Dunne had not felt so lost since Walter Bryce had come to town, scattering the peacekeepers to the winds of fate in his wake. If the two men failed to return to Four Corners, he knew it would be the end of something he held very dear.
The young man looked up to see Mary Travis staring down at him. With a start, he leapt to his feet, removing his bowler respectfully. "Howdy, Mary. Sorry, I didn't see you there."
"Didn't hear me, either I guess," the pretty young widow teased. "I had to call your name twice."
"Sorry," he said again.
Frowning, the blonde said, "Would you like to talk about it?"
"Whatever it is that has you lost in a fog."
He looked down, studying his boots as he struggled with his thoughts. "Oh, it wasn't anything really. I was just... I... well... I was just thinking that... uh..."
Placing a hand on the Easterner's arm, the newspaper woman said, "Calm down. There's no need to be so flustered. I can imagine what you were thinking about, anyway."
With a sympathetic nod, Mary said, "You're wondering where Chris and Vin are, and worried about how things are going since they left."
Letting his pent-up breath out with a long sigh, JD said, "Yes ma'am, you're exactly right."
The widow Travis settled into one of the chairs, motioning Dunne to reclaim his own seat. "I'm worried as well, I really am. Nothing has been the same since they left. Well," she sighed, "really since that woman came to town."
The young man nodded, looking away when he saw the hurt in the crystal green eyes. None of them knew for certain what had happened, but the woman's relationship with Chris Larabee had changed after they returned from the Gaines ranch. A few of the townsfolk claimed that they had heard the two in a heated argument while Larabee was still laid up from his wounds. The rest of them didn't pay much attention to what they considered to be gossip at first. Then they had seen the change. While the gunman and the newspaper editor were cordial around one another, there was a coolness to their interactions.
While all that flew through Dunne's mind, he said only, "Yeah, you're right. I wish I knew what to do about it."
Shaking her head, Travis said, "I'm not certain there is anything to do. Not right now at any rate. I think the others are feeling their way around the change."
"I reckon, but it just seems like they're all angry most of the time... mad at each other for the stupidest things."
Nodding, Mary said, "The chain of command is broken." When the brunet just looked at her with a puzzled expression, she explained, "Chris has been in charge from the first day, whether he was aware of it or not, and Vin has always been at his side, even when they weren't in agreement. Now they're out there, searching for that woman and no one is willing to either step into their place or follow the other men."
Seeing that the young man was sorting through her words, Mary patted him on the shoulder and stood to leave. "I'll see you later."
Dunne nodded distractedly, his mind still turning over the woman's words. He didn't even realize for several minutes that she had gone.
Nathan Jackson rode toward the little shack, watching for signs of life. The sun had cleared the horizon an hour ago, just after he left town, and he expected to at least see the blond up and about. Truth be told, he half expected to see the Texan at least sitting on the porch. No one reacted to his approach until he came abreast of the corral.
"Morning," Larabee called from the door as he swung it open. He held his Colt loosely in one hand.
"Mornin'," Jackson answered as he loosened the saddle on Abel's broad back and sent the horse into the corral. "How's Vin doin'?"
"Pretty good," Chris said as he came to stand next to the bigger man. "Been sleeping a lot, ate good and kept it down. Caught him heading for the privy on his own in the middle of the night. Wasn't too happy for the company."
"How'd he do on walkin' that far?"
"Made it there and about half way back." Larabee didn't elaborate on the fact that Vin had stumbled, nearly falling on his face in the grass. Chris had managed to catch him, and nearly carried him back to bed. By the time they got to the shack, Vin was out on his feet. He doubted that the exhausted man even knew when his head hit the pillow.
"You give him the teas like I told you?"
Nodding, the gunman said, "He drank every drop."
A broad smile spreading across his dark features, Nathan said, "He complain' much?"
Rolling his eyes, the blond said, "What do you think?"
A deep laugh his only answer, Jackson picked up his bag and headed toward the little shack. Stepping inside the room, he waited until his eyes adjusted to the dim light. When they did, he found that the sharpshooter was looking up at him from the bed.
"Well, good morning," Nathan greeted the young man.
"Mornin'," was the yawned reply.
"How you feelin' today?"
"Hell, ain't hardly been awake long 'nuff ta tell."
Nodding, Nathan came over and settled on the edge of the bed. Tanner sighed as he began checking him over. The healer assessed the wounds they had opened and his health in general.
"Chris said you ate pretty well, and you've been drinking your medicine like you're supposed to."
"Yes, sir," The blue eyes twinkled with humor.
"Any pain... even any you don't think's worth mentioning?"
"Other than th' ones in m' neck pesterin' me ta drink skunk juice 'n follwing me to th' privy?"
"Watch your mouth," came a voice from the porch, "or I'll leave your skinny ass out there tonight."
Jackson said nothing, but inwardly he sighed with relief. The exchange brought with it a sense of normalcy that had been missing from their little band for far too long. He found himself with hope that things would be all right after all. To the others he said only, "Well, looks like you're doing okay so far. Don't get any ideas that you can slack off, though."
"Yes, sir," two voices answered him in unison.
Chuckling, the big man said, "Y'all need anything from town? I'll bring it out with me tomorrow, or send one a th' others out later today."
"Yeah, actually there is," Chris said, "Think someone could round up a cot for me?"
"Told you," Tanner crowed. "Yer gettin' too damn old ta lay on th' floor!"
Glaring at the grinning man, the gunman refused to answer.
"Yeah, I'll see if Buck or JD can bring one out," Jackson said with a wink.
"Mite wanna see 'bout a rockin' chair, too," Vin continued to tease.
"Nathan, you sure you don't want me to double up on his medicine?" Larabee arched an eyebrow at the man in the bed.
Throwing up his hands in surrender, Jackson said, "Can't hurt him, but I ain't sayin' he needs it."
As he started out the door, Larabee said, "You're welcome to stay for breakfast."
"Thanks for the offer," Nathan said over his shoulder, "but Mrs. Cooper's ready to deliver. Best get back to town and check on her."
Leaving the little homestead a few minutes later, Jackson felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. There was every indication that they would soon be seven once again. The bleak days might very well be behind them, for the time being at least.
Vin looked up, watching the storm clouds blowing above the little prison. The sky had been threatening rain most of the day, and it looked as if it would deliver on that threat soon. He still felt so exhausted that he had barely moved since the day before. There had been a brief storm during the night that left Darry huddling beside him. She had pulled off her tattered shirt, using it to keep at least some of the rain out of their faces. He had wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close as they shared their meager body heat throughout the long night hours.
The morning was gray, the sunrise barely noticeable. They had lingered together long after the rain had stopped, drawing something more than warmth from one another. Darry lay with her head tucked beneath Vin's chin, her face resting against his chest. He kept his arm around her, holding her comfortably against him. Neither of them said anything, neither asked the other for anything more than what they received.
Finally they moved apart, each returning to the opposite sides of the cage. They lay much as they had since being imprisoned, thoughts going back to the bleakness that had held them captive for just as long. The hours dragged by, the grayness of the world around them reflecting the darkness of their worlds.
Toward the end of the day Hessie came out as usual, carrying their plates and a canteen. Then they saw Willie Joe marching behind her, a tattered canvas in his arms. Vin thought he recognized it as the one that had hidden him during their trip to the house, but couldn't be certain. He watched bleakly as they reached the cage, the young woman passing the things through the door. Once she did, she took the old tarp from her son and struggled to spread it over the top of their prison.
"Thank you Miss Hessie," Vin said, a note of surprise in his voice. He waited with only a little hope, but she didn't acknowledge his words. When she and the little boy had finally covered the rough woven wire top, they marched back toward the house just as the first fat drops of rain came down.
Chris watched the rain splatter against the window near his bed. His heart ached as he thought of Vin out there, in that loathsome cage. If he was still alive. Since coming back from the darkness, he had asked every one of Ella's lackeys when they entered the room. They had ignored his requests, demands and finally, screamed threats. None of them even seemed to realize he was even alive.
He pushed himself up on the bed, grimacing as his injured leg complained at the movement. Although they had applied heat and cold to reduce the swelling and some of the stiffness, they had done nothing more for him. The limb was all but useless, unable to support his weight for more than a second. Larabee pushed himself to work the leg though, forcing it to bend, move and take some of his weight. Lifting the mottled limb from the mattress, he lowered it over the side and eased his foot to the floor. Biting back a groan, he steadied himself with the bedpost and stood.
Hobbling painfully the few steps to the window, he braced himself and took most of the weight on his other leg. He watched the raindrops gather in force, pelting down from the sky like minions of hell.
Heedless of the fact that he was completely nude, he stood at the window throughout most of the evening storm. Finally, he heard the door open, and footsteps crossing the floor.
"Well, it's good to see you out of bed, darling," Ella cooed as she wrapped her arms around him. "You really shouldn't stand there in full view with nothing on, though."
"I don't give a damn," Larabee growled, pushing the demented woman away. "What the hell do you want?"
She grabbed his arm, trying to pull him away from the window. Her actions caused him to lose his precarious balance, and the nude man tumbled to the floor. He looked up at her, stark hatred in his eyes.
Ella stumbled back, her hand going to her mouth at that look. Recovering, the deranged woman said, "What I want is for you to stop this male posturing. What I want is for you to understand that you are not in charge any longer. What I want is for you to understand that I am. That is what I want."
Struggling to pull himself up, Chris gained his feet and grabbed her harshly. "Then lady, you've got a long wait, because I will never give in. You may think you have me, but all you have is my body here in this room. You killed any chance at having me three years ago when you murdered my family!"
"You're wrong!" She struggled to pull away from him, but the man held her firm. She continued to scream, suddenly feeling the lack of control over the situation. "You're wrong! I have you... here... now! We have always belonged together; I have fought far too long and far too hard for you to destroy that with your petty complaints!"
He slapped her hard across the face, feeling some faint pleasure as he watched blood well up on her lip. "Petty complaints? PETTY COMPLAINTS?! You goddamned bitch, you murdered my family!"
Glaring at him, she sucked at the split lip, unable to free her hands to wipe away the blood. She continued angrily, saying, "I have put everything into bringing us and keeping us together and all you have done is fight me. When will you give up your misguided notion that you know what is best?"
With a growl he pushed her away, smiling coldly as she landed against the bedpost and crumpled to the ground, stunned. Trembling with rage, he hobbled back to the bed, collapsing on the mattress as the physical and mental exertion suddenly left him drained to do anything more than slump against the headboard, panting heavily.
Ella managed to pull herself back to her feet. She seemed disoriented, not even looking toward the trembling blond. Instead, she staggered from the room, calling to her hired men as she did.
Chris was only faintly surprised when two of the men came in a few minutes later. One of them handed him a set of clothes and ordered shortly, "Put 'm on."
He struggled to pull the pants on over his injured leg, but finally managed to dress in the old work clothes he was given. Larabee smiled grimly, knowing that the state of the clothes was an indication that he had fallen out of favor with the insane Queen Bee. The men yanked him forcefully to his feet, uncaring that one buckled beneath him. He was half-dragged roughly from the room, struggling to stand, but not given the chance. He expected to find himself taken back to the cellar, and was surprised when they moved up the stairs to the highest floor of the big house instead.
The man in the lead pushed open the door at the top of the stairs, the narrow passageway forcing them to go single file now. Chris balanced himself against the walls at either side, biting back the pain as his battered and unused leg was forced to maneuver the steep staircase. The man behind him prodded him time and again to pick up the pace, but he refused to be hurried. He had suffered the loss of enough dignity; he wasn't going to crawl before these men.
Finally reaching the top of the stairway, he stumbled into a long, dim room. His guards pushed him, limping, deeper into the darkened space, then hurriedly left. Chris heard the distinctive sound of the door below being locked. Glancing around, he surveyed the room.
Lamps were spaced along the walls, each burning softly to offset the darkness. There were two small windows, one at each end of the expansive attic. They were covered with oiled paper and left to cast only a faint light into the room. Next, he noticed unframed picture canvases hung along the slanted walls and propped up along the floor. Hobbling along the creaking wooden floor, he let curiosity take him to the nearest painting.
It was Ella Gaines, painted in an idealistic, romantic light. He stared at the woman in a flower pastel gown, her dark hair flowing down her back, a bright smile lighting up her pale features and dark eyes. She was lounging back on a thick velvet couch, one delicate hand dangling over the high back, the other clutching a single pink rose to her chest. Chris stared at the fiction before him, wondering who the deranged woman had mesmerized to create such a twisted lie.
He limped slowly along, staring at canvas after canvas, each with the same, idealistic version of Gaines as the focus. By the fifth canvas, Larabee was seething, enraged that she continued to exude such a maliciously misleading persona with such abandon. That so many people believed it seemed incredible to the blond, even though he was at the head of that list for so long. When Larabee reached the sixth canvas, the world spun out of control and he cried out in shear, searing agony.
Ella stood in the middle of the canvas, her hands clasped before her to hold a bouquet of pale roses. She was dressed in a gown of purest white that he quickly recognized as a wedding dress. Her dark hair was swept up on top of her head, bedecked in tiny, fragile looking blooms. But it was the background that tore a hole in his soul. Behind her were flames, horrendous in their static violence. They were consuming a house.
Both fists tore through the painted canvas, ripping the vile image to shreds. As he destroyed the picture he screamed, filling the attic with the most virulent epitaphs his mind could conjure. Each one was aimed at the vicious woman who had so blithely destroyed his world.
Finally, the painting nothing more than a jumble of wood and cloth at his feet, he fell limply to the floor. He laid among the shreds, panting heavily, his head, heart and leg all pounding in a painful rhythm.
"I take it that you were impressed with my work," came a raspy, slightly slurred and oddly familiar voice from the shadows.
Larabee pulled himself to his elbows, blinking the sweat from his eyes as he peered into the darkness. He saw a vague shadow, oddly hunched to one side as the figure moved toward him with a crippled gait. He frowned as he tried to make out who was sharing his new prison with him. "Who's there?"
"Why, Mr. Larabee, don't tell me I've been forgotten."
Shock drained the color from Larabee's face as the speaker entered the dim light. It took several minutes before he could form a single word. "Fowler?"
Vin had been outside for most of the morning, going inside after lunch only under protest. He had to admit though, at least to himself, that it made sense, considering the fact that he had fallen asleep at least three times while he and Chris sat on the porch. He was beginning to think he'd never again get through an entire day with his eyes open. And he was getting damned tired of it.
Chris watched the younger man move restlessly on the bed, seeming to be in a fitful doze. He continued to sleep much of the time, and often that sleep was far deeper than the young man typically slept. But it seemed that, the longer his convalescence dragged on, the more restless he became. Nathan seemed to consider it normal, but Larabee wasn't certain that he shouldn't be concerned.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a wagon coming up on the shack. He turned from where he stood, leaning against the door frame to see Nettie Wells coming into view. He allowed himself a smile and stepped from the porch to meet her. The widow had been away since before they had returned to town. He had been expecting her to come check on Tanner as soon as she got home. As the wagon slowed and stopped near the corral, he stepped out to meet her, still smiling.
"Where is he?" never one to mince words, the woman stared a hole through him before he could answer.
"Inside, resting." He reached up and helped her from the wagon seat, lifting her to the ground. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she was off, nearly running toward the shack. Chris shook his head as he began tending her horses. It was truly amazing that Nettie Wells and Vin Tanner weren't related, they were so much alike. Stubborn and single-minded... and very protective of one another. And Larabee decided that she might be just what Vin needed right now.
Nettie entered the dim room, slowing just enough to allow her eyes to adjust to the shadows. As soon as she could make out the slender form tossing fitfully beneath the blankets, she hurried over and settled on the edge of the mattress. She covered her mouth with one hand to keep from crying out. He looked so frail that she was almost afraid to touch him. His burned and abused skin reminded her of red clay; his usually loose, tousled curls seemed lifeless and dull. Dark smudges beneath his closed eyes, and the way his brows were knitted together told her that he wasn't resting well. The thing that broke her heart, though, was how tiny he looked in the bed, as if he were nothing more than a shadow of the man she knew.
Tentatively she reached out, gently stroking back the locks that fell across his face. Her hand lingered, stroking tenderly down the side of his face, along the square jaw. Hot tears stung her eyes, and she allowed them to roll down her face as she continued to watch him.
Roused by the gentle touch, Vin's eyes opened slowly. He studied the figure before him, finally realizing that he was staring at his 'old biddy'. A smile spread across his face, and he put out a hand to touch her. Frowning when he found that she was crying, he asked softly, "What's wrong, Nettie?"
Realizing that she was being observed, Mrs. Wells struggled to bring herself back under control. Wiping the tears away, she said, "Nothing, son. I'm... I'm just glad to see you, is all."
If anything, his smile broadened, and Tanner said, "Glad ta see you, too. Casey told us you had ta go take care a some family business up in Claremont."
"Just got in last night... I... I would have been here earlier, Vin, but - "
His fingers covered her lips, "Ain't no cause ta explain, Miz. Nettie. Ya know how I feel 'bout family... ain't nothin' more important 'n that."
Her hand stroked down the side of his face, the tears flowing once again. "But honey, you're family, too."
He took her hand, kissing the gnarled fingers. As he looked up into the weathered face that he had come to know so well, his breath caught in his throat. Emotions, held at bay for so long, churned through his soul and left him breathless. His hand wrapped so tightly around hers that she winced at the force. Loosening his grip a little, he looked into her eyes, as if searching for refuge in their depths.
Nettie watched him as he began to tremble, his soul-deep eyes boring through her. She felt his hand tighten around hers and thought her fingers would break. But she didn't let go. His breathing took on an almost frantic pace, hitching from time to time as he tried to inhale. Then she watched as those big blue eyes filled with tears. She frowned, worrying that perhaps she should call Chris Larabee in. Reaching out to cup her hand around his jaw, she called, "Vin? What is it honey?"
He couldn't tell her, couldn't get the words to come. So much welled up inside him, that he feared he would blow apart right there on the bed. He began to tremble harder, his entire frame quivering until the bed itself started to rattle. Then, without thinking, he threw himself up off the mattress and into the startled woman's grasp. He wound his arms around her, holding on as tightly as he dared. And he began to cry.
Uncertain as to what was going on, Nettie wrapped her arms around the thin young man, cradling him to her as tightly as she dared. One hand stroked gently through the loose chestnut curls, and she began to rock ever so slowly.
The damn had broken now, leaving him with no defense in keeping the emotions contained. Everything that he had held at bay over the past weeks erupted in a torrent of raw pain. Anger, frustration, degradation, fear... all of it poured from the fragile young man. He clung to Nettie desperately, needing that lifeline to keep him from coming completely apart.
The widow held him, her heart breaking at the pain-filled sobs that wracked the reed-thin frame. She pulled the blanket closer around him, covering the trembling back and shoulders. Her hand continued to stroke through his hair, and she continued to rock. Leaning a cheek against one of his tear-stained one, she whispered, "Shhh, honey, it's gonna be okay. You're safe now, sweet boy, you're safe. No one's gonna let anything happen, shhh."
It was several minutes before he began to calm down, slowly relaxing into her arms. The sobs slowed, quieting as the torrent dissipated. Finally his head settled onto her shoulder, his tears slowed but continuing to flow. The trembling slowed as well, until it became an occasional shiver coursing through him.
"Son, I don't know what all happened to you, but you need to believe that you're all right now. Chris and the others will keep you safe... make sure nothing happens to you. Shhh." As more of his weight rested against her, she began to hum softly, her lips against his ear.
Vin heard Nettie's voice, heard it as she began to hum an old lullaby. He felt her arms around him, one hand running through his hair. He felt her heart beating against his own chest, and willed his own to slow to match it. He felt himself drifting off, and allowed himself to relax into her embrace. Finally, with a sigh, he drifted off to sleep.
Feeling the entire weight of her 'boy' slowly collapse against her, Nettie continued to hum and rock for several minutes. When it seemed that he was deep asleep, and seemed that her aged body would break from the dead weight, she slipped one hand behind his head and the other behind his shoulders. With infinite care, she lowered Vin to the bed, settling his head on the pillow. He whispered something, his brows knitting at the loss of contact, but didn't wake. Bending forward, she hummed quietly against his ear until he quieted once more. Rising up, she took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped the drying tears from the finely chiseled features. Stroking the unruly curls back from his face, she straightened, watching him for several minutes.
A sound pulled the widow's attention from the sleeping man, and she turned toward the door. She wasn't surprised to see Chris Larabee standing there, but was surprised to see the tears streaming down his handsome face. She opened her mouth to speak, but found that she couldn't. Nettie watched as he dropped his head, shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, and turned to stride quickly away.
The rain continued for hours, the tarp only doing so much in keeping them dry. Vin drew Darry to him once more, and the two of them huddled together against the elements. The night came and went, dawn a barely noticeable change. He shivered, and felt her shivering as well. Pulling her closer, he coaxed her against him, cocooning himself around her.
She rested her head against his chest, feeling the faint beat of his heart against her cheek. She slid her hand beneath the soiled overall back, gently stroking along his flesh, mindful of the still healing cuts. Without thinking, she pressed a soft kiss against his chest, hearing him gasp softly as he felt her lips against him.
Vin stroked a hand through her tangled hair, brushing through it with his fingers. He rested his chin against the top of her head, then turned, settling his cheek there. Her hand continued to move lightly over his back, like a spring breeze. Even when she didn't manage to avoid the deeper cuts, the pain wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. His other hand moved to the small of her back, resting there comfortably. The storm was forgotten as they clung to one another. He felt the hot sting of tears against his chest, and nuzzled his chin in the tangle of her hair. "You go 'head, Darry. Reckon if anyone d'serves ta cry, it's you."
The tears flowed, her body tensing and then spasming as her grief took flight. For the first time since her son had been so savagely murdered, she gave it vent. Darry felt Vin's arms tighten around her, and she clung desperately to him. Great, violent sobs tore through her, threatened to rip her apart as the anger, betrayal and helplessness battered her from within with more force than the storm without.
Vin held her, feeling the pain and anguish flowing from every inch of her body. His hands continued to soothe her, to reassure her that she wasn't alone. "S'okay, Darry, you go ahead. I'm right here, Darry... I've got'cha."
It was nearly afternoon before the storms diminished. Tanner felt the young woman's body relax as she expended precious energy. Her breathing slowed, becoming a whisper against his flesh. Her gut-wrenching sobs quieted until they were occasional whimpers. Finally they stilled, and she lay limply in his arms. Shifting her slightly, he tried to make her as comfortable as possible in their barren world.
His eyes scanned the gray world around them, as if some sense of hope could be found in the wretched landscape. His mind wandered, drifting from reality to hallucination. His eyes widened as he saw Chris sauntering toward the cage, his body moving with the ease of a predatory cat. He smiled as the blond drew near, that almost-smile lighting his ruddy features as he smiled in return.
"Thought I'd see if you wanted to go for a ride," Larabee said quietly.
"Wouldn't mind it," he replied. "Don't know's I can leave here quite yet. Cain't get outta this damned cage."
"Come on, Tanner, you want to go or not?"
"Chris, I need a hand, pard. Cain't get outta here."
"What's the hold up?" The blond brows knit together in a frown as Larabee frowned down at him. Shrugging, he said, "Guess you're not interested?"
"Chris! Help me... I wanna get outta here!"
"Well, I'll see you later," the black clad apparition turned and walked away.
"Chris," it was nothing more than a whimper.
JD Dunne watched from the shadows, tucked away inside the jailhouse. The other four men were all in town for the first time in days, and he had sent word for them to meet him. He let them know that it was important. It hadn't been a lie, he could think of only one thing more important, and he had no idea where to go looking for the other two men. That being the case, he had decided to act on Mary Travis' words. He had been mulling those words over for two days now, and had made a decision. If they needed to mend their chain of command, then he would see to it that the chain was mended.
He watched as Buck Wilmington strolled down the boardwalk, having come from visiting one of the women at Virginia's. JD watched as the big man wove a meandering course down the street, speaking and tipping his hat to every woman he met. The young man was forever amazed at how long it took his friend to get from one end of the boardwalk to the other.
As Wilmington approached the saloon, Ezra Standish exited the batwing doors. As immaculate as ever, the Southerner stood preening just outside the saloon door. He tugged at the sleeves of his red jacket, brushing at the frilled cuffs. Then he smoothed his lapels, picking something from the edge and flicking it away disdainfully.
The two men regarded one another for a brief few seconds. Finally, nodding, they turned to approach the jail.
Dunne's attention turned to where he saw Josiah Sanchez approaching from the other direction. The big man shuffled along as if the weight of the world had settled upon his broad shoulders. He didn't look right or left, barely acknowledging the townspeople who greeted him.
The last to appear, Nathan Jackson strode down the dusty street with a hurried gait. Unlike Sanchez, the former slave seemed to be watching in every direction at once with an uncommon wariness. Suddenly the vision of a cat, tensed to spring, came to the young man's mind. He watched as Jackson quickly caught up with the Sanchez, and the two men exchanged a few words. Fast friends for longer than the others had been together, they usually seemed so comfortable in one another's company. Not so today. JD watched as they walked stiffly toward the jail, looking for all the world like two enemies.
With a sigh, Dunne wondered for a moment if he had lost his mind. He watched the four storm clouds approaching the jail, and suddenly felt the urge to run like hell out the back door. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to stand his ground, to face whatever came.
The quartet entered the shadowy interior of the little jail, not one of them speaking to any of the others. Their footsteps ringing too loud on the wooden floor, they moved into the room, each standing and facing the youngest of their number. Waiting.
He tried to take another deep breath, but felt as if someone had wrapped their fingers around his throat. He couldn't seem to find enough air in the room, and wanted desperately to sit down.
John Dunne stood his ground.
He locked eyes with first one and then another, until he had met the gaze of each of the other men. Crossing his arms across his chest, he tried to ignore the feel of his heart pounding against his chest. He blinked. He ran his hand through his hair. He blinked again. He cleared his throat.
"Well damn it, JD, what was so all-fired important that you had to drag me away from Miss Lou?" Buck growled the words impatiently.
"I do believe it would be prudent for you to explain your reason for bringing us all here," Ezra said. Although his voice was smooth and cultured, the impatience rang just as loudly in his tone.
"I... I thought it was about time that we made some decisions," he answered them, hating how his voice cracked.
"Decisions about what, son?" Josiah asked with as much patience as he could muster.
"About... about what we d-do... what we do now that Chris and Vin are... well - "
"Are what, boy? Good lord, would you stop spittin' an' sputterin' around like a virgin on her weddin' night an' just get on with it?" Buck glared down at the younger man, looking as if he would turn on his heel at any moment.
"We need to figure out the chain of command now that Chris and Vin are gone. We need to find a way to mend it before we just fall apart," he spoke the words rapidly, not taking a breath until he finished.
The four men stared at him.
None of them said a word.
The grotesque caricature hobbled toward him, Chris staring openly at the sight of his family's murderer. The entire right side of the man's face was a hideous mass of scared flesh, stretched tight as if it had melted onto the bones below. His right eye was hidden below the mottled skin, his right ear nothing more than a blob of tortured flesh atop the ruined features. His right arm, already withered, was curled and drawn up against his chest tightly. His right leg was oddly bowed, drawing his body into an odd, sideways slump.
"Not a pleasant sight, is it? Your handiwork, I mean," the killer said.
"My handiwork? What the hell are you talking about? You walked back into that fire on your own; I didn't force you back there."
"Didn't you? I certainly couldn't allow myself to be taken into the custody of you and those bastards you ride with, could I?"
"Why aren't you dead?" he asked, a sense of confusion clouding his mind. He began to wonder if he hadn't gone completely mad. Maybe he was still back in that damned room; his mind destroyed by that bitch as surely as she had destroyed his life.
"Perhaps I am... perhaps this is hell. What do you think, Chris Larabee, is this hell?"
"You're asking me? I've been in hell for three years now, thanks to you, you son of a bitch!" He struggled to pull himself from the floor, but slumped back against the wall. Breathlessly, he continued, "You may not be dead yet... but you will be. I'll make damned sure of that!"
"Can you look at me and believe that to be a threat?"
Chris glared at the other man, but he didn't even flinch. Fowler simply stared back at him from that ruined face. After a few long moments, he broke off, turning away from the murderer.
Fowler limped over to the wall, his left hand reaching out to trail along one of the idealized portraits of Ella Gaines. He drifted from one painting to another, his one-eyed gaze taking in each of the figures hungrily. He seemed to forget Larabee was there for some time but, finally, "She is a beautiful woman, isn't she?"
"I thought so once, but now I know... she's a monster," he spoke the words softly, the emotions he felt far too immense to be released.
Cletus didn't seem to hear him. "You asked how I survived. It was her... dear, sweet, Ella. I walked through those flames and out through the back of that stable, for her. And I would again. I would do anything for her." He turned to regard the gunslinger through a single, cold, eye.
"I have done anything for her."
Larabee realized then that his sanity wasn't the one in question. Looking up at the man, he realized that Cletus Fowler had - indeed - done anything for Gaines. "Including murdering an innocent woman and child."
Laughing, Fowler said, "You may not believe this Chris, but that was not the worst of it. Oh, I'm sure it may seem like it to you, but murdering your wife and son was only a small part of what I have done to make her happy."
The blond felt his skin crawl at the thought of what else the fool had done to stay in that whore's good graces.
"You see, I walked through those flames because I knew that she would be waiting for me on the other side."
"She was in Eagle Bend that night?"
"No, nothing as mundane as that. She was waiting for me, however. It simply took some time to reach her. I stumbled from that stable, my clothes... my body... on fire. When I couldn't walk any longer, I crawled. I crawled on my belly for hours... days..." He drifted off, his gaze settling on something only he could see.
"I've never known exactly when or how she found me... or I found her. Things are... foggy about that time. She hid me away, took care of me."
"You were there... at the homestead," Chris whispered.
"Yes, of course," he answered matter-of-factly. "Just as she does now, she provided a place for me... away from prying eyes. Just as she always will. She promised that to me."
Looking up at the other man, he saw just how pathetic Cletus Fowler was. He was in love with her. In love with Ella Gaines. So horribly in love with the bitch that Fowler had done everything in his power to help her pursue her own twisted love of him.
For a reason he couldn't quite fathom, Larabee suddenly found the entire thing incredibly funny. Staring into the face of yet another life ruined by Ella's insanity, he began to laugh.
The sound, shrill and hysterical, filled the room.
Staying at Vin's bedside long enough to be certain that he was sleeping soundly, Nettie quietly rose and tiptoed from the room. Standing at the door, she pulled her attention from her friend and protector, and focused it on Chris Larabee.
The blond was in the corral, currying horses whose coats already shone. He moved with quick, tense movements, causing the big animals to snort and wicker as he raked the brush through their coat with too much force. Studying the gunslinger for a few minutes, Nettie finally shook her head and walked with sure steps to the wooden fence.
"Land sakes, Chris, you're gonna draw blood like that."
Larabee's head jerked up and he fixed her with a stare that was part anger and part embarrassment. Tossing the brush aside, he walked to the gate, opened it, and strode toward the house. The little widow followed close behind, not about to let him walk away from either his troubles, or her.
Reaching the porch, Larabee sighed. He knew he was being followed, knew that she wouldn't give up until she'd had her say. He was also certain that he didn't want to deal with any of this at the moment. With another sigh, he pulled the chair from the table, holding it for her. Once the older woman was seated, he grabbed a second chair and dropped wearily to it. Folding his arms across his chest, he stared off into the distance, waiting for Nettie to speak.
"You figure I'm gonna dress you down for what happened to him, don't you?"
Looking him up and down, she shook her head. "Can't see as I could do a better job than what you've already done to yourself, son."
He had no answer for that, her quiet words too far from what he had expected. He dropped his head, trying to hide the pain that never quite left his face these days. Finally he spoke, his voice filled with the pain he struggled to hide. "Don't reckon you can."
Nodding, the woman said, "You seem to be doing a fine job of it... carrying all the guilt for whatever happened to the two of you out there."
"It's mine to carry."
Silence stretched out for a full minute before Nettie replied, "Granted, you've got broad shoulders, Chris Larabee. But, I ain't for certain they're broad enough to carry all the burdens you seem set to carry. Now, I don't know what happened, but I think I know the two of you fairly well. I'm certain you didn't lead that boy into anything he wasn't set to face, and like as not he went willingly. Am I wrong?"
"Does Vin hold you responsible for what happened?"
"No ma'am." He was beginning to feel like a schoolboy, being chastised by the schoolmarm.
"I know him well enough to know that he's got a pretty firm grasp of reality. If he considered you to blame for it, he'd let you know. Am I wrong?"
Again, "No ma'am."
She smiled compassionately, watching the big, bad, gunfighter almost squirm under her questioning. Reaching out, she laid a hand on his knee. Softly, she said, "Chris, Vin would follow you into hell if you asked him, I know that as well as you do. But he'd go there willingly and of his own accord. I figure that going after that... that bitch... that caused the death of your family is as close to hell as either of you could go. And I also know without a doubt that the things that happened while you were both gone happened because of her."
Chris couldn't help but smile faintly at the proper woman's use of profanity. Lifting his head, he looked into her soul-deep, wise eyes. "Yes ma'am."
Shaking her head, Mrs. Wells said, "Then why are you wasting time wallowing in guilt and self-pity, Chris Larabee? That boy in there needs you to be strong for him 'till he's able to be strong for himself. For both your sakes, you'd better straighten that backbone and shed this foolishness, son."
Running his had over his handsome features, shaking his head with a soft chuckle, the blond said only, "Yes ma'am."
Rising stiffly from her chair, Nettie Wells said firmly, "Good. Now, I know they sent plenty of stuff out here for the two of you to eat, but I brought out more. Vin needs some fattening up, and he's never been able to back away from my chicken and dumplings, or my apple pie.
"I'll be staying over tonight, so I'd appreciate it if you could fetch the stuff from my wagon for me. I'm not one to tell a man what to do in his own home, but I'm gonna do it this time. You saddle your horse and ride into town for the night. You need a chance to relax a little, and this place isn't big enough for all three of us, anyway."
"Miss Nettie, Vin's not strong enough to do a lot for himself and, pardon me for saying it, you're not strong enough to help him with some of the things that are bound to come up over night."
Although a faint blush shone through the leathery bronze of her cheeks, the widow said, "You'd be surprised at what I'm strong enough to do, Mr. Larabee."
Hazel eyes glittering with humor, Chris said quietly, "No ma'am, I wouldn't."
Cletus had disappeared into the shadows, leaving him once more alone. He didn't know how long he'd laid there, his mind spinning with the horrors thrust upon him by Ella Gaines. Finally, Larabee pushed himself wearily from the wall and limped to where an old couch sat across the big room. Dropping to the seat, he settled his injured leg onto the heavy cushions and leaned back with a sigh. Running his hand along his face, he tried to clear his mind. He needed to look for options that would allow him to escape, and to rescue Vin.
But, at the moment, he found nothing to give him any hope that either of those things were within his reach.
The sound of someone approaching the couch caught Larabee's attention, and he looked up to see Fowler appear out of the shadows. The crazed killer shuffled over, a bottle tucked between his crippled right arm and his withered chest. Hooking a chair with his good hand, he came to sit near the blond. Without a word, he removed the stopper from the bottle and handed it to Larabee.
Staring for a minute, Chris almost didn't accept the offering. In the end, however, he took the bottle and swallowed as much of the fiery liquid as he could before stopping for a breath. His eyes never left the disfigured man, not trusting Fowler not to do something. Handing back the bottle, he watched as the other man wiped off the mouth of the whiskey bottle and tipped it back, drinking a healthy share of the contents.
For several minutes they drank in silence, before the insane man spoke. He sounded surprisingly sober as he said, "I truly am sorry for what I did to your wife and son, Chris. I don't expect you to believe that, and certainly don't expect forgiveness. Unfortunately every war has its casualties."
"It was never a war, Fowler, it was just pure insanity. I was done with that crazy bitch long before I met Sarah."
Fowler's single remaining eye flashed with anger as he responded to Larabee's description of his beloved. "You have no right to refer to her like that."
"I have every right, you damn fool." He knew he was taunting a rattlesnake, but didn't care. "What she's done... what she talked you into doing... it was nothing but pure evil and twisted hatred."
"No! Ella had every right. You were stolen from her; all she did was reclaim what was rightfully hers... nothing... nothing more."
"You're a fool to believe that. If something was never yours to begin with, it can't be stolen from you. I was never Ella's property."
"But the two of you shared... share... a great love, one of a purity and magnitude -"
"What we shared was nothing more than lust as far as I was concerned. Lust and a love for the bottle... that was the only love that ever entered the picture."
"That's not true!" Fowler threw the whiskey bottle, the glass shattering against the wall behind Larabee, showering the man with scotch and glass. He pushed himself to his feet, swaying as he lurched the few feet between himself and the other man. "She told me that the love you shared was so great that it would have killed lesser people!"
"You sick, twisted bastard," Chris spit the words out in a tight growl. "You believe anything that whore tells you because you're blind in love with her!"
"No! Damn you!"
Cletus fell on him, his useless right arm not hindering his attack as he began battering Larabee. The gunfighter recovered quickly, and the men began trading blows. The big room echoed with the sounds of their fight, which continued for several minutes. Despite the man's crippling disabilities, Chris found him a strong opponent, the man making up for his useless right arm with his head and leg. Larabee, his own leg still all but worthless, found himself time and time at a disadvantage when he tried to fight the other man standing up. But, fighting from the ground, they were well matched.
And in the end, Chris Larabee's anger was far greater than that of Cletus Fowler. Sitting astride the grotesque caricature of a human being, he ploughed one fist after the other into the ruined face, battering him until -
"Stop it! Stop it right now!"
Ella Gaines stood between two of her men, at the top of the stairs. The sounds of the fight had echoed through the house, sending her to make certain that her 'beloved husband' was safe. Finding him sitting atop the crippled Fowler's chest, pummeling the man, caused her heart to leap. She had known something like this would happen when she had Chris brought to the attic. Had counted on it. There had never been anything that made her feel quite as excited as watching the handsome man fight.
He fought for her, of course.
But, finally, she called a halt to it. She didn't want Cletus dead. Not now at any rate. With a single gesture, she sent the men flanking her into the fray. They quickly subdued Larabee, dragging him to his feet and pulling him across to face her. Reaching out one manicured hand, she stroked his sweat and blood soaked face tenderly.
"Chris, Chris, Chris. You have never been able to hold your temper."
Glaring at the embodiment of evil he had once given himself to freely, Larabee growled. His spit at her, the bloodied saliva hitting her on one cheek.
Ella shrieked, a banshee sound that bounced off the walls around them. She drew back, slapping him with every ounce of force she could muster.
Held firmly between her henchmen, Chris offered no resistance. He simply smiled.
Vin continued to stare after the apparition of his best friend. Somewhere in the depths of his consciousness he knew it had been nothing more than his fevered imagination, but the feeling of abandonment continued to plague him. Where was he? Where was Chris? He had promised to come for him, to rescue him from his prison.
"Where are you, cowboy?"
Still wrapped in Tanner's arms, Darry stirred from an exhausted sleep. Shifting in his embrace, she looked up at the haggard features, she said softly, "Vin? What's wrong?"
Slowly he pulled his attention back to the present, looking down at the young woman he held. "I'm sorry Darry, didn't mean ta wake you."
"S'okay. What's wrong?"
"Nothin'... well, nothin' new."
"Don't look like nothin' from th' look on yer face. It ain't like we've got anythin' else ta do, you might 's well tell me what's eatin' at you."
"Chris... he was here... at least I thought he was... I don't know... I... ah, hell." He slumped against her.
The young woman shifted around, taking the tortured man into her arms now. He curled against her willingly, allowing her to comfort him. She sighed, feeling the faint tremble of the lean frame and the hint of fever that never seemed to leave his body. And now he was having fever dreams, seeing things - people - that weren't there. It was only a matter of time now, and the weeks of torture would prove too much for the man she held.
She only wished Vin was right, that Chris Larabee had been there. Because if that didn't come true soon, the gunman would be rescuing a corpse.
"Well, lookee here. Ain't that just too sweet."
Darry started, alerting the man she held. Both of them looked up to see Hiram and Lafe standing over the cage.
"What do you want?" Wade growled hoarsely. "Ain't neither of us got th' strength ta do anythin' to you. Why don'cha just go ta hell."
"Don't sound like you lost yer fight, you little wildcat bitch," Lafe said with a cold, hard laugh. He unlocked the door to the little makeshift prison. Reaching inside, he grabbed her by one ankle and began to pull. "Ya know I always did like havin' a woman with a bit a fight in 'r."
"No!" She struggled to get loose.
Vin held onto her, struggling against his growing weakness as well as the other man. He couldn't let the bastards take Darry... not without a fight.
Lafe growled and kicked at the other man. With a final tug, he dragged her through the opening. Slamming the door closed and locking it, even as Vin crawled after them, the disfigured man laughed again as Tanner fell against the wood and barbed wire. Reaching down, he pulled the young woman to her feet, dragging her behind him. She fought him as well as she could but, in the end, could only stumble after the man.
Still in the cage, Tanner pulled himself from the door, at the same time realizing that he wasn't alone. He looked up to see Hiram staring down at him, raw, animal hunger in his piggish eyes. The big man reached down, opening the cage door wide, and standing aside.
Vin knew it was a trap. He knew he stood no chance against his captor. But still he crawled through the opening and, drawing on a strength he didn't have, he pulled himself to his feet. With short, stumbling steps, he tried to get away.
Behind him the bear-like man smiled coldly and followed a few steps behind. He allowed the half-dead man to stumble along until he fell back to his knees. Still he tried to escape, crawling until even that was beyond his abilities. Still unable to give up, Vin pulled himself along on his belly. Finally, just as he was within arm's reach of the barn, he collapsed.
Hiram reached down, wrapping his hands through the braces of the oversized overalls. Just as he lifted the smaller man into the air, he heard a cry from inside the barn. Lafe was having his fun. Now it was time for him to have some fun of his own. With a deep chuckle, he carried the now half-conscious man like a rag-doll back toward the front of the house. He knew exactly where he wanted to take his little party.
Chris had been dragged down from the attic, cleaned up, and returned to the room he had come to know far too well. Ella had stayed long enough to gloat over his fight which, in her twisted mind, had been for her honor. He simply ignored her deluded ramblings until, undaunted, she left the room in a swish of satin and petticoats.
Limping to the window, Larabee stared out into the gloomy afternoon light. The storm had passed outside, but his own continued unabated. Leaning his arm against the window, he rested his forehead against it, eyes focused on a place out of sight beyond the trees. He had no idea of what was happening to his friend, but knew it wasn't anything good.
Blinking hard, he frowned. His focus went to the yard below, watching the movement there. One of the 'hiders was riding up into the yard, but he wasn't alone. Chris watched in growing horror as he recognized the limp form slung across the saddle before the big man.
Hiram dismounted, looking up to make certain he was where he wanted to be. He smiled, his broad slash of a mouth revealing broken and decayed teeth, when he saw that the blond bastard was looking out the window. He watched as Larabee pounded against the glass, his mouth open in a scream.
Screaming for his friend, no doubt.
Pulling the limp body from the saddle, he dropped him unceremoniously on the ground. Tanner dropped with a thud, but didn't respond otherwise. Neither did he move, simply lying where he landed. The big man handed over his horse to one of the others, and then glared until the small gathering of hired men moved away. He planned for an audience, but it was going to be a very select one.